21 Jun 2022

Health and Social Care Data Strategy: Unlocking capital investment to create a data-driven healthcare system for all

The Department of Health and Social Care’s new data strategy is bold and ambitious, but will it realise the full potential of data in health without creating a wider gulf in healthcare outcomes and access, especially as the Government rein in much needed investment?

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Last week, the Department for Health and Social Care published their bold and ambitious health data strategy, Data saves lives: reshaping health and social care with data.  The long-anticipated strategy builds on the data-driven power and innovation seen during the pandemic.  It aims to transform the way data is used to drive breakthroughs and efficiencies, helping to tackle the COVID-19 backlog and create a healthcare system that Sajid Javid would deem fit for ‘the age of Netflix’.

The pandemic transformed the use of healthcare data to help systems overcome the challenges posed by COVID-19.  For instance, data was used for remote monitoring to monitor patients from the comfort of their own home, which enabled speedier hospital discharge and prevented many readmissions.  Data was central to understanding the indirect effects of COVID-19 on other diseases including cancer, creating a picture of the burden of missed care, and informing strategies for staffing, resources, and policy to curb the effects on healthcare outcomes.[i]

Building on the data gains seen during the pandemic’s state of crisis is more important than ever.  Almost 6.4 million people are sat on the NHS waiting list, with Sajid Javid, Secretary of State for Health and Social Care, openly acknowledging the backlog is set to ‘get worse before it gets better’.  The publication of a data strategy alone will not hasten the inception of a fair, equitable NHS for all in the age of Netflix – albeit it is a starting point and demonstrates the Government’s intent.

One concern the Government should be acutely aware of is ensuring the strategy does not widen health inequalities.  For instance, the hope is that by March 2024 75 per cent of the adult population will be registered to use the NHS App to improve patient access to GP records, enabling better management of their health.  But some patients with greater healthcare needs – particularly the elderly – are not usually attached to smartphones in the same way younger, generally healthier people are.  What this may mean then is digitally illiterate patients will not be able or will find it more difficult to take advantage of the ‘one stop shop’, while the younger, more digitally aware can pop to the ‘shop’ for appointments, repeat prescriptions and medical records with ease.  As the path is set for growing reliance on digital, the underserved and digitally illiterate need to be at the forefront of mind in policy implementation otherwise the rift in health care access and outcomes will grow.

Following the recent introduction of The Health and Care Act, Integrated Care Systems (ICSs) – due to be put on a statutory footing on 1 July – will be at the forefront of implementing the data strategy in their local systems.  The strategy plans to bring data together across the NHS and social care, to allow ICSs to improve decision making and have a clearer picture of population health – including unequal outcomes and access – in their system.  Closing this divide is no easy task, it requires capital.

The capital investment in data infrastructure necessary to transform health and social care from a ‘blockbuster’ to ‘Netflix’ model is massive.  System decision makers will surely welcome the promised £25 million over 2022/23 to support implementation of digital social care technology across England to enable data capture and sharing between settings.[ii]  But they may be stumped that the Government feel the NHS ‘doesn’t need any more money’ given the undertaking the strategy represents.[iii]  While there were increases in capital funding in the 2021 Spending Review, these fall short of what is needed to stem the tide of the lack of investment over the last decade.[iv]

In an environment where the Treasury has a tightened hold on finances, can we really expect the data strategy to make substantial inroads on the growing waiting list without leaving anyone behind?  If health outcomes and access for all are to improve, health inequalities must be at the forefront of implementation and capital funding unlocked to fully realise the potential of data in health and social care.

[i] Banerjee, A., Sudlow, C., Lawler, M. Indirect effects of the pandemic: highlighting the need for data-driven policy and preparedness. Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine. May 2022. Available at: https://doi.org/10.1177/01410768221095245.

[ii] Fo, A. New data strategy aims to ‘close digital divide’ between NHS and social care. The Independent. 13 June 2022.

[iii] Skopeliti, C. NHS ‘doesn’t need any more money’, says Sajid Javid as waiting lists rise. The Guardian. 11 June 2022.

[iv] NHS Confederation. Unlocking capital funding: improving patient safety and reducing the backlog. 14 June 2022.

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